Role of Satan in Paradise Lost Book 1 & 2

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      The most interesting character in the first two books of Paradise Lost, and one who most engages our attention, is Satan. He appears as ‘a great and sublime figure, the heroic antagonist of God, the great friend who, in spite of the hopelessness of his conflict with that power “whom thunder hath made greater,” continues to fascinate us and compel our admiration.’ The technical form in which Milton cast his theme required that he should present his characters on a lofty scale. Besides Satan was an Archangel, who, at the commencement of the poem, had only recently transgressed, and whose “form had not yet lost all her original brightness”; he had still left in him all those supramundane virtues of a “fixed mind”, an “unconquerable will”, and a “courage never to submit or yield”. Milton was obliged to lay on these heroic qualities rather thickly in order to distinguish his antagonist from the “puny race of mankind”. Yet there have been critics who, carried away by the weight and emphasis attached to these qualities, have regarded Satan as the hero of the poem. Some have even pretended to see a certain political affinity between Satan and Milton. A more recent critic, Denis Saurat, set out to prove elaborately how Satan and Milton were personal enemies and how the poet took a keen delight in visiting acrimonious vengeance upon his foe. Nay, Milton, according to this critic, “had Satan in him and wanted to drive him out. He had felt passion, pride and sensuality. The deep pleasure he takes in his creation of Satan is the joy.... peculiar to the artist.... Hence the strange monster Satan. Whereas inferior artists build their monsters artificially, Milton takes his, living and warm with his own life, out of himself.” But these criticisms hit beside the mark. Satan’s heroism may lie in his daring and his dauntlessness, in his willingness to undertake perilous risks and his readiness to go through them; but the motive behind them all is personal ambition, in the gratification of which he displays qualities which are far from heroic - a subtle and crafty mind, and a spacious and hypocritical behavior.

The Supreme Egoist

      Among all the fallen angels, Satan is the supreme egoist, giving the “I” undue supremacy in his thoughts. From first to last his chief concern is himself, how best he may thrive and exalt himself. He has a lust for power, which makes him seek pre-eminence not only among the angels, but presumptuously claim parity with God. He must be great whether he is in Heaven or in Hell. Punished for his presumption in Heaven, and hurled down into Hell, he arrogates to himself the leadership of his community on the principle that it is “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven. “Or, as Masson puts it, “Having a third of the Angels away with him in some dark, howling region, where he might rule over them alone, seems infinitely preferable to his puny sovereignty of an Archangel in the world of gold and emerald.” Hence, whenever he refers to his eminence, there is a noticeable pride bordering on vain glory, which ill becomes the mouth of any genuine leaders of men. In his opening address of the conclave in Hell, for example, there is this tone of self-gratulation:-

Me though just right and the fixed laws of Heaven Did first create your leader, next, free choice,
With what besides, in counsel or in fight,
Hath been achieved of merit, yet this loss,
Thus far at least recovered, hath much more
Established in a safe unenvied throne,
Yielded with full consent.

      But he is not content to be merely the King of Hell. Untaught by experience, he “aspires beyond thus high”. He is equally jealous in defending his position against any rival; he exaggerates the risks of the exalted state he occupies to those who have but recently tasted the bitterness of God’s wrath. Thus it is place and power that he loves most not for the benefits they may confer on others, but solely that he may be foremost.

The Perquisites of Power

      Milton does not leave the reader in any doubt on the matter. He introduces Satan in all the ostentation of his power. The similes by which he refers to his appearance on his throne liken him to any absolute monarch of the Orient. Later, again, when Satan interferes in the debate, volunteering his service in the perilous expedition to the new World, he is described as having been raised to transcendent glory above his fellows, and speaking with “monarchal pride”. There is a passage, indeed, in his speech, which seems to exonerate him, and present him in the light of the selfless leader of his host. But examined in its context, it merely proves his anxiety to secure all the glory to himself. None shall share the honors of the enterprise with him. Being their imperial monarch, it is his duty to risk himself in their behalf. He would be unworthy of his high place, if he is merely content to rule them in peace; he must share the hazards of his office as he does its glory. His duty becomes greater by virtue of the higher eminence he enjoys. Thus speciously he thrusts his absolute will upon his subjects, and without giving them further opportunity to speak, he dismisses them.

      Milton sets this scene in Hell in direct apposition with another in Heaven where God Almighty announces his foreknowledge of the Fall of Man, and proclaims that he shall be saved if one among them will “pay the rigid satisfaction, death for death”. “Which of ye,” He asks, “will be mortal to redeem Man’s mortal crime?” None volunteers, and “silence was in Heaven.” But the Son of God comes forward finally, and undertakes the atonement for Man. His is not the tone of self-assertion that Satan’s is, but meek and gracious. And the behavior of either at the conclusion of their speeches is a further contrast. “Thus saying, rose the Monarch (Satan), and prevented all reply; Prudent lest, from his resolution, Others among the chief might offer now.” This is superciliousness excelsior, the conduct of a hypersensitive absolutism. On the other hand, “His (Christ’s) words here ended, but his meek aspect Silent yet spake, and breth’d immortal love To mortal men, above which only shone Filial obedience.” This is absolute detachment from self, perfect devotion to a public cause.

      The same contrast is still further emphasized in the reaction of the audience to the two speeches. “Admiration seized all Heaven”, but the crew of Satan “bend towards him with awful reverence prone, and as a god extol him equal to the Highest Heaven.” Satan need not have taken the trouble of shutting out all further discussion about the enterprise, for not one of these devils dared to oppose him; ‘they dreaded not more the adventure than his forbidding.’ They had been cowed into such meek and abject submission. Satan’s tyrannous hold upon his subjects in nowhere else so much emphasized.

      Like the tyrant that he is, yet eager to preserve the formality and appearance of a republic in his government, he imposes his will upon his subjects in a very subtle manner. He has his own tool in Beelzebub, and, having summoned the assembly and desired them to deliberate on the revenge they have to take on God, he uses Beelzebub to propose his plan.

      Melton makes it plain that the enterprise of seducing man did not originate with Beelzebub, but with Satan; and if the latter did not propose it himself, it was only his eagerness to appear that he was guided in all his actions by the will of his subjects. All the evidence so far examined thus makes it perfectly clear that Satan was an Archangel ruined, greedy for power and jealous to preserve what he had acquired, ambitious of more, ostentatious, self-willed and tyrannical. This is the first impression that Milton is careful to produce at the opening of his Second Book.

      The next trait that we note in him is his passion for restless activity. In his very nature, says Masson, Satan was the most active of God’s archangels: ever doing some great thing, ever thirsting for some greater thing to do. Hence “uplifted high from despair” he schemes and plans, and resolves on the expedition which Beelzebub outlines in the poem. He has discussed it thoroughly with his bosom-companion, and having decided to venture on it, in spite of its dangers, he orders the building of Pandemonium, summons all the angel orders into it, and sits in council over them. Eager to carry out the plan himself, he first makes Beelzebub stress on the nature of the perils, then he himself proceeds to enlarge on them, and thus succeeds in getting himself approved as the prosperous spirit to venture on it. And no sooner does he dissolve the council, than he puts on swiftest wings, and he is gone.

Vindictive Activity

      But all his activity is vindictive. It is to work out malice on God. His mission is to destroy what God has brought into being -

to confound the race
Of mankind in one root, and Earth with Hell
To mingle and involve, done all to spite
The great Creator.

      He “represents cosmical negativity incarnate”. Hence the promises Sin and Death to glut their maw immeasurably by seducing the race of mankind, and to Chaos, the Anarch, he holds out the hope of reducing Earth “to her original darkness and your sway, and once more erect the standard there of ancient Night”. His is a destructive genius, maliciously bent on ruining God’s fair creation, merely to gratify his spite. “Yours be the advantage all, mine the revenge!” expresses with the force of an epigram this trait of his character.

      Malice prepense against the Almighty leads him to be unscrupulous in this means and methods. Milton has made him propounds the grand principle of his existence in the following words (Book I)

To do aught good never will be our task
But ever to do ill our sole delight
As being the contrary to His high will
Whom we resist.

      But he had reaped bitterly the fruits of an open revolt; therefore, in this book, he plans “covert guile”; and to achieve this end he studiously cultivates the arts of hypocrisy in overcoming all intermediate obstacles. Disdainful as he is of the rout whose ruin he has brought about, he flatters and cajoles them into approving him for their leader in the enterprise. Despising as he does their weaker intelligence and their love of ease, he extols the harmony they have achieved amongst themselves, and bids them be merry the while he is absent from Hell. Confronted by Sin and Death, when he realizes that his swagger may lead him to abandon his adventure altogether, he becomes suave and even affectionate, and addresses her as ‘dear daughter’ and him as ‘fair son’, - the very Shapes, whom he has a moment ago despised and called out in vilest terms. Perhaps it is the memory of this meeting that makes him more courteous in his address of the Anarch, Chaos. Time is fleeting; he is all agog to reach the Material Universe. He has been caught in the welter of the warring elements and he is ignorant how farther he is yet to travel. Not to waste words, then, he is brief and courteous with the ruler of the Abyss. His apprenticeship to hypocrisy, here, stands him in good stead later when he reaches the universe of man. His degradation has only commenced; it is to be completed later.

Satan’s Qualities

      While these qualities are scarcely worthy of sympathy yet there are certainly other traits in him which evoke our spontaneous admiration. They are his intrepidity, on the negative side, and his daring, on the positive. The deep, illimitable Abyss, the perils of which he speaks so assuredly about to his followers, does not daunt him. With rare courage and impetuous speed, he sets out alone into the unknown. Never once does he lose heart as he battles his way through the fierce impact of the atoms on him and around him. Milton enhances the grandeur of the struggle by the similes he employs on the occasion. Equally dauntless and undismayed is Satan in the presence of that grisly terror, Death. He could not understand what that Shape was as it came striding heavily and menacingly towards him.

The undaunted Fiend what this might be admired,
Admired, not feared; God and his Son except, Created thing naught valued he nor shunned.

      He hurled words of high disdain on his head, and when he was answered too insolently, “incensed with indignation”, he burned like a comet that fires the length of Ophiuchus huge in the Arctic sky. Intrepid courage, such as this, is bound to win admiration for itself. The whole episode deserves the eulogy that Sir Walter Raleigh has expended on it. But Satan is of absorbing interest not by virtue of his matchless courage alone. His inordinate ambition, his self-aggrandizement, his love of ostentation, his very power for evil and all that is embraced by that term - all these, too, have been rendered attractive by the poetic genius of Milton. Yet the secret of his charm is only in part due to his poetic timbre; the other part of it lies in the reader’s own psychological reaction to his character. All the world loves an exhibition of power, whatever be its nature. The strong whether virtuous or wicked, have the power to attract and to charm. Satan is the very embodiment of a volcanic energy which sweeps everything before it. He is “the image and type of those great and selfish conquerors whose pride it was to draw the admiring world after them; and whom Milton detested more than any other man.”

University Questions

In what light does the figure of Satan emerge in Paradise Lost Books I & II? Would you agree that Milton was of the ‘devil’s party’ without knowing it?
Discuss: Satan is a “figure of heroic magnitude and heroic energy and he is developed with dramatic intensity.” Illustrate your answer from Book II of Paradise Lost.
Critically estimate the character of Satan from your reading of Paradise Lost Book II
Attempt a character sketch of Satan from your reading of Paradise Lost Books I and II.

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